Ha’azinu: Bird’s Eye View of Jewish History &
Ve-zot Ha-berkhah: Moses Man of God
Reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department
Let us begin our study of this sidra with Nahmanides’ summary of the contents and significance of the Song that Moses taught the people:
This song constituting for us a true and faithful witness, plainly tells us all that will befall us, opening first by describing the kindness God bestowed on us since He chose us for His people, followed by a record of His bounty towards us in the wilderness, and how He disinherited mighty nations for us. Indeed, from an overabundance of good things, our rebellion against God is foretold – how we would descend to worshipping idols. Then it is recorded how we would consequently incur Divine wrath, being finally expelled from the land and dispersed, as has indeed befallen us. Subsequently the Song relates that the Lord will ultimately repay our enemies and wreak His vengeance on them. For their hatred and persecution of Israel were not motivated by the fact that Israel did commit idolatry like themselves but that Israel did not commit such deeds, preferred to be different, refusing to eat of their sacrifices and spurned their heathen cults and strove to eradicate them as it is written: “For thy sake are we killed all the day long” (Psalm 44:23).
Consequently, they maltreat us out of hatred of God and He will avenge such insult. It is plain that the Song speaks of our ultimate redemption … testifying that we will suffer Divine reproof, accompanied by the promise that our memory will nevertheless not be blotted out, but that God will forgive us our sins and repay our enemies for His name’s sake. This is as the Sifrei has it: “Great is this Song, as it embraces the present, the past and the future, this life and the Hereafter”. Were this song merely to constitute our horoscope as foretold by an astrologer, it were ment for us to believe in it, since all its contents up till now have been confirmed by events, with not the slightest deviation: how much more so should we wholeheartedly believe in and await the fulfillment of the words of God through the mouth of His most trusted prophet!
Note what Nahmanides says regarding our incurring of Divine wrath” and how we would experience his reproof, in spite of which, however, he would not completely blot out our memory, but would, on the contrary, forgive our sins and repay our enemies for His name’s sake. This change over from Divine wrath being vented on us through the medium of the enemies of Israel to the latter’s punishment by that very same hand, for His name’s sake is the theme of the following verse in the sidra:
I thought I would make an end of them, I would make their memory cease from among men: Were it not that I dreaded the enemy’s provocation, Lest their adversaries should misdeem, Lest they should say, Our hand is exalted, and not the Lord hath performed all this. (32:26-27)
This verse contains a very daring anthropomorphism indeed, attributing to God the sentiment of fear, as it were: “Were it not that I dreaded the enemy,’, and has no parallel in the Torah. Ibn Ezra’s attempt to weaken its force by stating that the verse speaks in human terms is totally inadequate to explain away the unusual boldness and starkness of the expression, when applied to the Sovereign of all mankind.
It is the Divine purpose to raise the spiritual standards of His creatures, improve heir well-being in all respects till the stage is attained when as recorded in the familiar Aleinu prayer: “All the inhabitants of the world will acknowledge and know that it is to Thee every knee must bend, and by Thee every tongue must swear.” In our sidra, the Almighty, as it were, expresses concern and apprehension that this ultimate purpose would be obstructed and undermined, that, on the contrary, mankind would become further estranged from God by the effects of His vengeance on Israel for their misdeeds. “Were it not that I dreaded the enemy’s provocation, lest their adversaries should misdeem, lest they should say, Our hand is exalted and not the Lord hath performed all this.” The Divine judgment on Israel is therefore annulled for fear of desecrating the name of God. This same concern is expressed by Moses when he sought to avert the Divine decree on Israel when they sinned with the Golden Calf:
Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For evil did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains. (Exodus 32:12)
It is again the subject of Moses’ intercession with God after the sinof the spies:
Now if thou kill all this people as one man, Then the nations which have heard the fame of Thee will speak saying: Because the Lord was not able to bring this people to the land … Therefore He hath slain them in the wilderness. (Numbers 14:15-16)
This concern over desecrating the Devine name – hillul ha-shem – assumes a much more intense and extreme form in our sidra. Here it is the Almighty himself who is, as it were, “concerned” over the world being misled and diverted from the path leading mankind spiritually forward. He is fulfilled with the apprehension lest His name be brought into disrepute instead of sanctified and His sovereignty universally recognized and acknowledged, which is the ultimate goal of all creation:
Were it not that I dreaded the enemy’s provocation lest they should misdeem, lest they should say our hand is exalted and not the Lord hath preformed all this.
The last sidra of the Torah contains Moses’ parting benediction to the tribes, to the whole people and the record of his death and burial.
In the opening verse, Moses is given a title that has never been accorded him previously in the Torah:
And this is the blessing, wherewith Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel, before his death. (33:1)
Some commentators consider that this title was accorded him to stress the prophetic origin and force of the words he utters there; that they did not merely proceed from his own mouth, but were endowed with Divine authority. This is the view of Ebn Ezra. An opposite view is taken by other commentators including Hirsch. The title implies, on the contrary, that these were Moses’ own words; that of the faithful shepherd of his flock, bidding farewell to his people. In contradistinction to the Song he taught the people in Ha’azinu and, for that matter, the rest of his utterances in the Torah which were, as is often stated: “according to the mouth of the Lord”. For this reason, the Torah underlines the fact that though it was Moses who uttered these words. it should be remembered that Moses was nevertheless “the man of God” The author of the commentary Ha’amek Davar sees a connection between the title “man of God” and the timing. It was accorded to Moses just before his death:
With death at hand, there was enkindled in Moses a Divine flame. Like a flickering candle that bursts into brilliant flame just before it burns out, so that soul of the righteous man on departing this world and about to enter the Hereafter, rises aloft with a spiritual impetus more in tune with its own ethereal nature … Moses then attained the highest degree of spiritual perfection.
However, he is accorded yet another title in the very last action associated with him, a title that had previously been employed by the Almighty when He rebuked Miriam and Aaron for speaking ill of Moses and comparing themselves with him. There God called him: “My servant Moses” (Numbers 12, 7) which is, no doubt, the highest honor that could be paid him:
So Moses the servant of the Lord died there. (34:5)
The same title was accorded him in the book of Joshua when God entrusted the leadership of Israel to Joshua with the words:
Moses my servant is dead.
There exists a wealth of Midrashic legends associated with Moses’ last moments on his hearing the ominous tidings: “Behold thy days approach that thou must die”, especially with regard to his pleadings with the Almighty to release him from, or postpone for him, the fate of all mankind. Here we shall quote one extract from the Midrash on our sidra dealing with this theme.
Rabbi Pinchas said: When Moses was about to depart this world. God said to him. “Behold thy days approach to die”. Whereupon Moses replied: Master of the Universe, after all my labours, thou sayest unto me: “Behold thy days approach to die?” (Deuteronomy 31:14). “I shall not die but live and declare the works of the Lord”(Psalm 118:17). Thereupon God said: You cannot prevail in this matter: “For this is the destiny of all men” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Moses then said: ask of Thee one favor before I die, that as I enter the Hereafter, all the gates of Heaven and the deep be opened for them to see that there is none beside Thee. Whence this? For it is said: “Know this day and lay it to thine heart, that the Lord he is God … there is none else” (Deuteronomy 4:39). Whereupon God replied: You declare: “There is none else.” I too say: And no one else (od) hath arisen in Israel like unto Moses …” (Deuteronomy 34:10). (Devarim Rabbah 11:5)
Here Moses’ request is not to see the Holy Land, to lead Israel thereto, or to fight their battles. He wishes his days to be prolonged that he may “declare the works of the Lord” and at any rate, if that could not be granted him, that he should, at least, be vouchsafed one, last, great miracle which would open the eyes of everyone to perceive that “there is none beside Thee.” In other words, Moses, who understood the working of human nature, knew that. though the Israelites had witnessed the plagues of Egypt, the departure from exile, the wonders of the Red Sea and their forty years’ wanderings in the wilderness the manna, quails, the pillar of cloud and fire and, above all, the Revelation at Sinai, Moses was well aware that, in spite of all this; “For I know that after my death ye will utterly corrupt yourselves and turn aside from the way …” (Deuteronomy 31:29). He therefore requested one favor, that he should be vouchsafed a final miracle, granting his people a true perception of the exclusive omnipotence and omniscience of Divine existence:
That all the gates of Heaven and the deep be opened for them to see that there is none beside Thee, as it is said: “Know therefore this day, and lay it to thine heart, that the Lord He is God in Heaven above and upon the earth beneath; there is none else.”
What is the implication of the Divine reply, the apparent play on the word od: “You declare there is none else (od). I too say and no one else (od) hath arisen in Israel like unto Moses”. God answers that Moses’ request has already been acceded to, as far as possible, without infringing on man’s free will. There is no more clearer revelation of God than the contents of the Torah itself, Torat Mosheh – as it is termed, in which it is related regarding:
All the signs and wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land. And in all that mighty hand, and in all the great awe which Moses showed in the sight of all Israel. (Deuteronomy end) What Moses had requested had already been granted. All the gates of Heaven and the deep had been opened and “unto thee it was shown for thee to know that the Lord He is God; there is none else beside Him” (4:35).
This same thought that our Torah is the supreme example of Divine Revelation to mankind is expressed in the Psalmist’s eulogy of the Torah:
The Law (Torah) of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul, The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eye. (Psalms 19:8-9)
In contradistinction to the spiritual clarity of Divine Revelation in the Torah “enlightening the eyes”, Moses’ end, as described therein, constitutes a mysterious and unknown chapter:
And he buried him in the valley, in the land of Moab over against Beth Peor: but no man knoweth of his burying unto this day. (34:6)
The very subject of the sentence, “And he buried him,” is mysterious and unexplained, an impression that is intensified by the end of the verse “that no man knoweth of his burying…”
Note also that it does not say kivro, his “burial place”, but kevurato, his “burying” referring to both the mode and location of his burial.
The Ralbag’s (Rabbi Levi ben Gershon. Gersonides) comment on this verse is particularly illuminating and sounds the most plausible of all that has been said on this subject:
It is indeed a very strange phenomenon that as much as the Torah took great pains to describe the exact location of Moses grave: “in the Land of Moab, in the valley, over against Beth Peor,” in spite of all this. the Holy One blessed be He so devised it that no man knoweth of his burial place, so that generations to come should not go astray and worship him as a deity.